Ansonia beats the drum for UConn’s Lawlor

Photo of Brian Koonz

ANSONIA — Jack Ahearn turns 80 this year, but the boy who lost out playing the drums in kindergarten is still sore.

“My sister brought me to kindergarten that day at Assumption School in 1942,” Ahearn began. “The nuns started us with little instruments. I’ll never forget it. There was this kid over there. He had the drums, but I wanted the drums.

“Instead, Sister Mary Arthur gave me a triangle. I didn’t even know what the hell a triangle was. He got the drums and I got a triangle. I think up until eighth grade, I told him, ‘I never liked you. You got the drums and I didn’t.’”

The kid with the drums and the cowlick was Marty Lawlor, who like Ahearn, never left the city — and the people — he loved most. The two became lifelong friends, just like their wives and kids and grandkids.

These days, Ahearn can’t beat the drum loud enough for Marty’s granddaughter, Tierney Lawlor, a senior on the UConn women’s basketball team. The top-seeded Huskies travel to Webster Bank Arena this weekend for the NCAA tournament’s Bridgeport Regional.

For a busload of Ansonia fans on Saturday, Ahearn will be the ringmaster of the road trip, the guy who books the buses and plans the itineraries, whether the destination is Saratoga or Storrs.

If UConn gets past UCLA, another bus will roll out for Monday night’s game. As always, the 55-passenger coach will depart Nolan Field with an empty seat or two.

“Is that for the cooler and the sandwiches?” asked a member of the blindly uninitiated.

“You got it,” Ahearn grinned from his Rufus Street living room, which at last count had 24 family photos on various walls and tables.

Bonds and blood run deep

After 20 years with the Seymour recreation department — and 32 years before that with American Brass — Ahearn schedules his own bus trips now, with more than a few set up for UConn games.

“I don’t advertise or anything. It’s word of mouth,” Ahearn said. “They know where I am and they come. These trips are easy. It’s 70 percent of the Lawlor clan, and the rest are Ahearns and a couple of friends.”

The bonds and the blood run deep here, just like they do throughout Ansonia, the Valley enclave bisected by a river and connected by family ties. So when Tierney Lawlor makes it — she is chasing her fourth national championship — this city makes it, too.

Marty Lawlor was the best man in Jack and Maryann Ahearn’s wedding. Jack Ahearn is the godfather of Marty and Joan Lawlor’s son, Martin. There are other connections, of course, enough to fill the front pages of a Bible.

The Ahearns have been married for 55 years. Their son, Tim, is best friends with John Lawlor, Tierney’s dad.

“They were together from — honest to God, when I say the cradle — that’s how long the two of them have been best friends,” said Maryann Ahearn, who worked as a school nurse back when Bob Zuraw was superintendent. She now works two days a week at Assumption School.

“Honestly, we have pictures of Tim and John playing in the playpen together. The two of them were like Frick and Frack. They’ve been friends forever.”

‘Give me five Tierney Lawlors’

Beth Lynch, whose son, Patrick, coached Tierney at Ansonia High, reserved two seats on Saturday’s bus for herself and her grandson. Saturday will also mark the fifth birthday of Joan and Marty Lawlor’s great-granddaughter, Kali. It’s a good bet she’ll be wearing her UConn cheerleader outfit.

Lynch’s own grandkids are sixth-generation Ansonia residents. They are emblematic of the city’s old families and the new dreams of its youth. For them, Tierney Lawlor is the role model and the proof that heritage matters.

“I’ve watched her all through high school and I’ve known her family my whole life,” said Lynch, the daughter of legendary Ansonia sports booster Matthew “Pop” Shortell. “My husband worked with Tierney’s grandfather. I worked with her grandmother at City Hall. That’s just the way Ansonia is.

“My son always told me, ‘Give me five Tierney Lawlors any day.’ At 5-foot-7, she was the center on the team. She was just so determined and diligent. She did whatever you asked and more, just like she does now at UConn.”

Lynch will tell you how everyone in Ansonia knew Marty Lawlor, the man behind the counter at the post office. She will also tell you how everyone loved him.

He was pure Ansonia — hardworking, honest, loyal and fiercely devoted to his family.

“It’s a shame her grandfather didn’t get to see this," Lynch said. “He was such a great supporter of hers and all the kids."

For a city where the tired Farrel factory still stands guard over the past, Tierney Lawlor towers over all of it, a promise kept and a future secured like all those national titles.

“She’s such a source of pride for all of us because Ansonia always gets ripped,” Maryann Ahearn said. “Tierney has taken that stigma away. I don’t think there’s anyone in Ansonia who doesn’t feel like they know her. She’s really put Ansonia on the map.”

Bend an elbow, lose your voice

Down the hill at J.R.B.’s Family Restaurant on Bridge Street, the Kahyaoglu family has created a nice neighborhood place over the last 30 years with the inviting refrain, “Why Cook Tonight? Stop In For A Bite!”

Owner Dawn Kahyaoglu and her son, John, seamlessly pass orders to the kitchen staff in Turkish and English. For those who work here, UConn women’s basketball — and most especially, Tierney Lawlor — help bring a city and its cultures together.

“We all love her. Having her on the team just makes us shine a little bit more,” said John Kahyaoglu, 29, a self-described jack of all trades who is working as the manager on this day. “We’ve got a celebrity in town. It’s a big thing for us, it really is.

“Trust me when I say this: If you walk into the bar on game day, and at least one of the TVs doesn’t have the UConn game on, you’re going to hear about it.”

Some come to J.R.B.’s to slide into a booth and order a couple of chicken parm grinders. Others come to bend an elbow at the bar and root for the Huskies like the team can hear them in Storrs.

For Monica Coddington, who grew up in Ansonia and serves customers at the restaurant and the bar, having Lawlor on the team makes her cheer a little louder. But maybe not as loud as some of the fans on the stools.

“They’re always a great team, but when it hits home, it’s even nicer,” said Coddington, 40, the resident artist here with her UConn posters and drawings on the chalkboard at the bar.

“For her to reach for the stars from a little town like Ansonia — and make it — it’s just great. It’s great for her and it’s great for us. We’re all so proud of her.”

Maybe Jack Ahearn never got to play those drums in kindergarten. But he’s got plenty of company now.; @briankoonz